I was so nervous on April the 25th 2013. My friends Grif and Jim had come with me to Calgary airport to help drop off Twiggy with the screening guys. This procedure is necessary 48 hours in advance of flying the bike. Inside I was a ball of nerves. What if there was a problem? What if they refused to fly her? The trip would surely be over.
I got on the flight at Calgary Airport on Saturday the 27th of April and was assured Twiggy was in the hold of the aircraft. The flight was uneventful (thank God) and we touched down at Gatwick half an hour earlier than expected at 07:30. I raced through passport control…went to pick up my bags that were already circulating on the carousel ….only to find that I didn’t have a pound coin to pay for the bloody luggage trolley. I have been away from England for nine years so this was all a bit of a learning curve for me. Anyway…baggage in hand I race through customs and hailed a cab to take me to Shed H Servisair terminal about 5 kms away. I was there within an hour of landing and so was Twiggy! Even better still, UK Customs cleared her electronically and within ten minutes I was pushing her across the yard and unloading my bags in order to pack her panniers (you’re not allowed anything in the panniers if you ship by air). I re-connected the battery, re-mounted the mirrors, turned the fuel on ….yes she was allowed 1 US gallon of fuel in the tank, and pulled the choke lever on. Now was the moment of truth! Would she start?? I cranked her over about three times and the motor sprang to life. This was the first inkling that my trip had become real! Wow! I was about to start an adventure that I had been planning for about two years. It was an emotional moment….in front of a bunch of hairy Bulgarian truckers that had just dropped off some electronic goods bound for Canada. I didn’t care, for the next two weeks I was a solo rider until Switzerland where I would meet with Ulf Mueller, my future travelling partner.
It took me about two hours to load, pack, re-pack and fuss over the luggage on the bike. Once complete, I started her up and rode up and down the yard weaving from side to side to get used to the inordinate amount of crap I was carrying. Yes, I’ve been told that we all do this on a big trip. We pack way too much stuff and this has now become apparent as I type from a dodgy motel room in Romania.
I was set. After asking directions as to how I could get out of Crawley I hit the road and withing 200 feet was my first roundabout. HOLY CRAP….i have to drive on the LEFT! I never thought this was an issue but all of a sudden I was mortified. I elected to drive southwest to Devon via the A272 to Andover….it would be more relaxed than the M25 motorway for sure. Besides, my blood pressure is high enough already.
The A272 just south of Crawley has actually had a book written about it. I can now see why. Simply put, it’s lovely. I thumped along on Twiggy , a 2004 Suzuki DR650 and lapped up the sunny morning that unfolded through the remnants of river mist and dewy fields. I was re-discovering the country of my birth again with memories of limestone churches and people cutting grass in green wellington boots that will stay in my mind’s eye forever. Onward through the countryside of southern England on small roads I could smell farmyards and even a bakery in one small town. Unusual for a Sunday I thought. Kids were pressed up against their backseat windows as they noticed that my bike had a Canadian license plate, some waved and I would reciprocate. Beauty all around me. Life was good.
The sun disappeared behind cloud on the A303 near Stonehenge. I was going to stop there for some photos but it was heaving with people. I was tired and cold now. I needed a hot cup of tea pronto so I pulled into a petrol station about 8 miles from Stonehenge. To my Surprise a gentleman came over and asked if he could take a photo. This was followed by a Lady walking across the car park waving a piece of paper in her hand. She asked if I had space for one more sticker on the bike. I was dubious but Ok’d the sticker. It turns out Jenny was from Overland Magazine and by chance she was there with her husband ….at a small fuel stop on the A303! We became friends pretty quickly and I look forward to throwing out some articles for this fine publication soon.
I arrived at my Mum’s house shortly thereafter and was treated to a Sunday roast dinner and lots of hugs. It was so good to see her. This week was to be the week that I would visit as many friends and relatives as possible. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for me that would ultimately end with me standing by the bike at Brittany Ferries’ terminal in Plymouth after a wonderful ride there with my old school friend Chris. It was hard to leave England. I feel that I haven’t seen anywhere near enough of these wonderful people.
The crossing to Roscoff, France was perfect. Only a little swell and my own 2 berth cabin. Once out of the bike gear I wandered around the decks peering into shops and gazing out to see through the darkness of a still night. A glass of wine saw me go to bed and sleep straight for 7 hours.
France was just how I remembered it and once again I was on the road thumping my way along well maintained autoroutes through beautiful scenery. The first part of this route I knew well because it was our old route to Le Mans and the 24 hour races that were usually held in the 3rd week of April. Just the name Le Mans makes me tingle with excitement these days. Onward through French countryside and small towns I eventually reached my cousin’s place just south of Paris. Roget is a wonderful man who has an even more wonderful wife. Raymonde would ensure I was well fed for the next few days.
Eventually the time had come for me to say my goodbyes to French Family and head out for Switzerland and Ulf’s abode. He sent me a text a day earlier stating that he would a day late in his preparations and that he needed more time. Once again the French countryside rolled by and I was enjoying the sunshine and warmth. Farmers were in their fields tilling grass on tractors that looked so old. I stopped occasionally in small towns to grab a coffee or a snack. There’s something completely different about French villages, they know how to eat well and every street corner smells of wonderful food. I was in heaven.
The city of Basel came and went and before I knew it I was being urged to purchase Swiss road tax for the princely sum of 40 euros. After explaining to the border guard that I wasn’t driving a truck, only a motorbike, he retaliated that it was the same for ALL vehicles….then spotted the Wenger wristwatch that was attached to Twiggy’s handlebars and said that the Swiss made the best watches in the world. I told him this one was made in Japan and rode off.
Wadenswil in Switzerland is lovely. It’s on the shores of Lake Zurich and is in a perfect setting….except that Switzerland is overcrowded. There are people everywhere! I felt like such a country bumpkin bumbling around the streets looking for Ulf’s abode. Eventually I found it and was greeted by a black Audi driving on a collision course with me. I t was Carmen, Ulf’s Girlfriend in the driver’s seat and she was waving frantically at me to let me know I had the right address.
Ulf was right…he wasn’t ready yet. In fact we had a lot of work to do …like mounting the tool tube and repairing a flat tire. All this work was punctuated by good Swiss food from Carmen and a margarita or two…or three. Ultimately the time came for us to say goodbye to Carmen and wend our way east into Liechtenstein and Austria. My heart went out to both Ulf and Carmen as they said their goodbyes, it choked me up because I had only been through this ten days earlier and I know exactly how painful it all is. It was a somber ride in the rain to Austria. From what I saw, Liechtenstein and Austria were wonderful places but shrouded in cloud that obscured my view of mountains. Occasionally the clouds would part just enough for me to see red terracotta roofed farmhouses tucked away in tiny dells or high up on mountainsides where bell collared cattle roamed.
Austria gave way to Germany and Bavaria where we settled for the night. This was our first night of many to come and as we checked into our Gasthaus room I’m sure this was on booth of our minds. Would we get along with each other? Does one of us have any really annoying habits? One thing that struck home quickly was the amount of electronic stuff that we all use today….and the cables, chargers and hard drives. Jeepers, this was going to be an ordeal.
The next day, Germany turned into Austria which turned into Hungary. We went from spectacular mountain scenery in Bavaria to Hungarian flat farm field in the blink of an eye. Just like back home on the Canadian prairies, this is where you start to fidget on the bike. Ulf especially. His 6 foot three frame was not used to perching atop a fully loaded XT600. It’s rather like trying to cram a Daddy Longlegs into a matchbox. We made plans to get hi a set of highway pegs made up soon J The rain had continued all day and our gear was soaked. Fortunately all my gear was wet from the day before so I really didn’t care anymore.
Settling in for the night in a Hungarian town called, Mosonmagyarovar we treated ourselves to a slap up meal in the hotel ….accompanied by a guy playing the Hammond organ. Yes, it was just like being back in the 70’s again being a kid and listening to some relative who had just bought a Hammond organ and was trying to entertain the family. I relished the knowledge that I was now old enough to own a gun though. That night we made plans to see Budapest the next day. Perhaps it wouldn’t rain tomorrow?
Sure enough, it rained the next day. As we rode east toward Budapest we got wet again……for about and hour and a half J . Riding through the city centres of Buda and Pest we crossed the Danube river twice…just for the hell of it. The architecture was stunning. Big wide streets lined with 8 storey apartment buildings from a forgotten age dwarfed us as we threaded through traffic. Barges on the Danube struck home to me how important this river was and still is for modern day commerce. I’m so glad I got this on the GoPro camera.
Within two hours of Budapest we were crossing the Romanian border. This was our first experience of what a more controlled crossing could be like. It was a three part process with passport control leaving Hungary, entering Romania and checking to see if we needed to pay road tax. Fortunately Motorcycles are exempt. Within 1 minute of passport control, I stopped to put on my gloves and helmet properly and was accosted by a woman who wanted all manner of things from me. She wanted to wash my bike, she wanted my Austrian road tax sticker….i had to seem very stern and tell her to go away. She picked on Ulf as I readied myself for the 100km ride into the spectacular Romanian countryside. Note:- The roads are not as good as Hungarian roads but HUGE fun if you own a bike! The countryside went from flat farm fields to rolling hills in no time and took us through small towns that seemed so run down and penniless. It was a stark contrast to the rich lifestyle we have become familiar with in Europe and I was astounded to see horses and carts parked up outside village shops. Another common sight is to view people tending their farm fields by hand at almost every turn. On one hand I admired and was envious of the simplicity of life here but on the other hand knew this was a reflection of changing times in a country in need of growth.
Ulf and I checked into a motel tonight that is rough around the edges. We know we will see a lot worse in the future but for now it’s good for us to be humbled gradually I think.